Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his Detective Sherlock Holmes, the character that defined his writing career. However, while Conan Doyle and Holmes has since helped to define the mystery genre to the present day, the former is also known for another character, Professor George Edward Challenger. The star of several early science fiction novels, he exemplified the immediate post-Victorian era in England.
Born in Scotland in 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle demonstrated a keen interest in reading and writing from an early age. Doyle showed an early affinity for the written word, writing by the age of 5, he was encouraged by his mother to further develop his craft. He was enrolled in a private school in England, away from a troubled household by the time he was 8 years old, where he was introduced to a far-reaching literary world. Some of his early favorite authors and eventual influences were Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne.
After graduating from private school, Conan Doyle returned to Scotland, where he attended the University of Edinburgh, studying medicine. Between lessons, he began writing short stories, soon selling "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley," to Chamber's Edinburgh Journal in 1879, his first professional publication. Toward the end of his academic career, he spent a year on board a whaling ship as a surgeon, but by 1882, he was back on dry land, joining a classmate in a practice. However, this arrangement lasted only a short time, and he soon opened his own practice, where he continued writing between patient visits.
In his early literary career, he published several novels, but in 1886, he wrote “A Study in Scarlet,” featuring his best known creation, Detective Sherlock Holmes. Influenced heavily by Poe, Holmes has since become a cultural phenomenon, and so popular, that Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect the detective after his “death.”
By the end of the 1800s, author Brian Aldiss asserts that the Victorian public was in need of an outlet, and exploration around the world was providing good material for stories. Authors such as H.G. Wells (whom Conan Doyle exchanged letters with) had begun to publish his own science romance stories, while Verne had already blazed ahead with the latest technological thrillers that brought people around, through and away from the world. In a 1910 luncheon hosted on honor for American explorer Robert Peary following his trek to the North Pole, Conan Doyle noted: "Writers of Romance had always a certain amount of grievance against explorers."
The event may very well have inspired one of the author's next novels, The Lost World, featuring a new character, Professor Challenger. Where Holmes was laid back, Challenger was aggressive. The novel, which took a group of adventurers deep into the South American jungle, featured a lost plateau of primitive dinosaurs and man, cut off from the rest of the world. Conan Doyle noted in a letter to his Mother, Mary that "[The Lost World] will be more a boys book than any I have done," featuring adventure. The novel, written in 1911, was received with great enthusiasm from his publisher at The Strand, who proclaimed it the "The very best serial that I have ever done." The book was published in 1912 and was accompanied by photographs of Conan Doyle dressed as Professor Challenger, along with maps. The stories were met with an enthusiastic response from the public.
In October 1912, the serialized story was published in book form, with another Challenger story on the way from Conan Doyle. The next story, “The Poison Belt,” features a reunited cast of characters, called to Challenger's house with the instructions to bring along a tank of oxygen. Upon their arrival, they find that the Earth is passing through a band of interstellar gas, which is predicted to kill all those caught unaware. The story is a major departure from The Lost World, moving from a scientific adventure story to a post-apocalyptic one.
The third and final Professor Challenger book, The Land of Mist, published years later in 1926, reflected Conan Doyle's own lifelong interest in spiritualism, a fantastic departure from the science fiction world that he'd established. Two further Challenger short stories appeared during the same time: “When the World Screamed” (1928) follows Challenger as he drills through the crust of the Earth, and “The Disintegration Machine” (1929), which involves an incredible machine that can disintegrate and reintegrate any object.
Conan Doyle led an interesting and varied life. He was knighted in 1902 for his political activism, was an avid sports participant and enthusiastic supporter for justice. Above and beyond all of that, he was an author who helped popularize detective fiction while dabbling in historical and science fiction.
The Challenger books recall Verne’s style of science fiction, but were innovative in their release, marketed to younger readers, described by Conan Doyle as “more of a boys book than any I have done.” They were accompanied by photographs, perhaps the earliest precursor to the viral video or book trailer. While not as well known as Doyle’s more popular works, The Lost World and follow-ups continue to capture the imagination through to the present day.